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Coaching changes highlight MLS moves, at least for now

Six clubs have a new man in charge and a seventh has a new assistant who is the head coach in everything but the title.

January 17, 2010|By Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer

This is the year in which the World Cup will take a huge bite out of the middle of the Major League Soccer season, consigning the circuit to little more than sideshow status for a month.

So what does MLS need to do?

Normally, the answer would be to sign half a dozen or more high-profile players, hoping that their arrival from foreign climes would generate some fan excitement.

But big-name signings have been exceedingly thin on the ground; nonexistent, in fact. There are only a couple of weeks left until players report for preseason training, but a glance at the rosters reveals little that would cause fans to stampede to the ticket windows.

The acquisition of Clint Mathis by the Galaxy, for example, is not exactly going to sell out the Home Depot Center in the absence of David Beckham.

If big names do come -- and they will -- it's more likely to be after the June 11-July 11 World Cup in South Africa.

So what MLS has done in the interim -- apart from jumping to 15 teams with the scheduled March 25 debut of the Philadelphia Union -- is to shake up its coaching ranks.

Six clubs have a new man in charge and a seventh has a new assistant who is the head coach in everything but name.

The choices made by the clubs have not sent headline writers scrambling for their keyboards, but they have been interesting.

Two of the men are new to the league, Mexico's Carlos de los Cobos of the Chicago Fire and Sweden's Hans Backe of the New York Red Bulls. Both bring impressive credentials to MLS.

Another, Chivas USA's Martin Vasquez, is getting his first opportunity as a head coach, no doubt monitored closely by friend and colleague Jurgen Klinsmann, who took Vasquez to Germany as his assistant at Bayern Munich.

The other four are recycled products, not that that is meant as a slur. They are Brazilian-born American Curt Onalfo of D.C. United, Yugoslavia-born Preki of Toronto FC, Ecuador-born Octavio Zambrano of the Kansas City Wizards and Poland-born Peter Nowak of the Union.

Of the seven, the only one with MLS titles already on his resume is Nowak, who won a championship as a gifted midfielder for Chicago in 1998 and another as coach of D.C. United in 2004.

Nowak left D.C. United to become an assistant coach with the U.S. national team, and had charge of the American squad at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This will be the first time he will try to build a team from scratch.

Since expansion teams traditionally struggle -- the two most notable exceptions being the 1998 Fire and the 2009 Seattle Sounders -- not much is expected of the Union in 2010, but that will not stop Nowak from pushing the team to the limit.

Nowak had three of the top seven selections in the MLS draft, held in Philadelphia on Thursday, and used them to land three teenagers, including Oregon State forward and Pacific 10 Conference player of the year Danny Mwanga as the No. 1 pick.

Nowak is taking the long view.

"I will give them my passion and everything I have learned in the past," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Bob Ford, "but we have chosen the slow road."

The Red Bulls have been on the slow road since they were founded in 1996. They have never gotten out of first gear.

This year, they will finally move into their new home in Harrison, N.J., which is where Backe will be trying to build a team that is worthy of a new stadium

The 57-year-old Swede has coached a dozen teams in half a dozen countries over the last 30 years, winning a handful of championships and cups in Denmark. He was an assistant under fellow Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson at Manchester City and with the Mexico national team, and presumably learned something about failure.

Whether Backe is superstitious is unknown, but as the club's 13th coach in 15 seasons, he will need at least a sense of humor, if nothing else.

The Red Bulls finished with a league-worst 5-19-6 record last season. Backe would have to be a colossal failure not to improve on that mark.

De los Cobos faces the same problem as Chicago's new coach. Both are largely unfamiliar with MLS and the way it operates.

"I have to learn things quickly," said De los Cobos, a former Mexico national team player and assistant coach whose most recent success came with the El Salvador national team, which he revitalized.

Fortunately for Chicago fans, De los Cobos brings the correct philosophy to the job.

"I know the most important thing is to win, but there are different ways of winning," he said at the time of his appointment. "My objective has always been to play an attractive style of soccer that can be enjoyed by fans [and] involves a lot of ball movement."

The attacking philosophy is shared by Vasquez, who has taken over the coaching reins of Chivas USA, after Preki moved on to take charge of Toronto FC. Preki wasted little time in making his mark in Canada, shipping playmaker Amado Guevara out just as he had done at Chivas. The two never saw eye to eye.

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